Caviar Caveat

caviar. sturgeon. fish eggs.
Several Caspian Sea states have agreed to stop fishing sturgeon for the rest of this year to protect shrinking stocks of the fish prized for producing caviar, a U.N. agency said Thursday.

Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakstan agreed to the temporary halt at a meeting in Paris of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, a U.N.-affiliated body that controls trade in endangered species.

The countries took the step part of a 12-month action plan they adopted after CITES threatened to slap a total export ban on the countries if they did not act to curb illegal fishing.

"This is an excellent decision that is in the best interest of sturgeon conservation," Kenneth Stansell, chairman of the CITES standing committee, said.

Poachers have taken a toll on stocks of Caspian sturgeon, which produce the shiny black eggs that can fetch prices of up to $1,000 for a half pound in Western Europe and the United States.

"If they didn't agree to start to manage the resource in a way that we think is sustainable and sound, then we would have had to ban all exports - which are very important to these countries' economies," said Tom De Meulenaer, a senior scientific officer with the group.

Turkmenistan, also on the Caspian, was not represented at the meeting and must confirm in writing that it accepts the plan or face a ban on its caviar exports, CITES said in a statement.

Iran, the fifth Caspian nation, is not included in the agreement because its management of caviar exports has been deemed fairly effective.

CITES officials would not speculate on how the latest move would affect prices.

"The concern is to make sure that sturgeon are sustainably managed," said spokesman Michael Williams. "Also, the inventories have not been done yet, so that won't be known for another month or so."

Under the freeze, the countries agreed to only export caviar already in storage from this year's spring harvest. They have until the end of the year to study sturgeon stocks, approach Interpol to examine the illegal trade of sturgeon and allow CITES to inspect sturgeon management activities.

The temporary freeze would not likely have an immediate, sweeping effect on poaching, but the countries also have until next June to come up with a longer-term plan that would, among other measures, crack down on illegal fishing.

"For every ton caught legally, we estimate that between 9 and 12 tons are caught illegally," said John M. Sellar, a senior enforcement official. "Now, (the countries) will begin to install more control. They have a strong commitment to working with us."

Stocks of the Caspian's beluga sturgeon - which produces the most expensive caviar - have dropped by about 90 percent in two decades, victims of destroyed spawning sites, pollution and the end of Soviet-era caviar regulation. Organized crime groups have quickly moved in on a trade that was once state-controlled.

The sturgeon must be killed to harvest the egs. However, research is being conducted on how to obtain the eggs without killing the fish.

The U.N. agency had temporarily frozen international caviar sales pending a decision at the Paris meeting which began on Tuesday.

All five Caspian countries as well as more than 140 other nations have signed the CITES treaties, which enable the agency to bar countries from buying products made from endangered species.

At a meeting in Geneva last week, the four former Soviet republics, fearing a total ban, agreed to try to reduce over-fishing of sturgeon. They also agreed to coordinate legal trade and stop poachers; in return, they wanted to maintain their current legal quotas. A CITES scientific panel originally recommended the quotas be reduced by about 80 percent until controls are in place.

By Angela Doland
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